Thursday, May 6, 2010

Exit polls in Britain’s parliamentary elections Thursday night predicted a narrow but indecisive victory for the center-right Conservative Party that would leave the country facing a period of political uncertainty without a clear idea of who might form a government.

If the narrow lead the Conservatives had in the exit poll — conducted by British broadcasters — reflects the actual voting figures across the country, it would leave them the largest party in the 650-seat parliament, but short of the 326 seats needed for an overall majority.

Such a “hung parliament,” as it is known, the first since 1974, would likely provoke a round of political horse-trading and constitutionally mandated uncertainty as the three party leaders maneuver in an attempt to form a government — either through a coalition with another party or as a minority that would rely on the ad hoc support of other parties’ members to pass any legislation.

By constitutional precedent, a hung parliament allows the sitting prime minister — Gordon Brown, 59, leader of the center-left Labor Party — to have the first opportunity to form a government. Analysts said he would likely seek to do so by reaching a coalition deal with the third-place, centrist Liberal Democrats.

Labor cabinet minister Alan Johnston told the British Broadcasting Corp. that such a move would make sense. On the central issue, how to restore the economy, we have so much in common, he said of the two parties. He added that there is also common ground on the Liberal Democrats signature issue of electoral reform.

But Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, 43, said repeatedly during the campaign that the party with the most seats and most votes — almost certainly the Conservatives — should be given the first chance to form a government.

“The electorate is in a pitchfork mood,” said James Forysth, political editor of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine. “The Lib-Dems will find it very hard to prop up Gordon Brown.”

Conservative Party officials “are confident that they have done better than the exit poll suggests, Mr. Forsyth added. “If they get over 300 seats, they will likely seek to govern as a minority.”

As much as 40 percent of the electorate identified themselves as undecided on the eve of the elections, making the outcome impossible to predict even as results started to come in around midnight in Britain

A heavier than expected turnout in many constituencies led to some would-be voters being turned away when polling stations closed at 10 p.m. One senior Labor figure suggest that some results might be subject to court challenges as a consequence.

National issues such as immigration and the economy weighed heavily in the campaign, but local factors played larger-than-usual roles because of the fallout from Parliament’s expenses scandal, political analysts said.

Many members of Parliament resigned after the publication of a database detailing their expense claims, revealing that many had used public money for home improvements or had made fortunes by selling off properties they bought with their living allowances.

As a result, there were many more open seats than usual. Analysts said that members who chose to stay on in traditionally “safe” seats may discover that they have been tarnished by the expenses scandal and a general anti-incumbent mood among voters.

“People are really struggling with their tribal political affiliations,” said Martin Bright, the former political editor of the staunchly Labor-backing New Statesman magazine. “They want change.”

Since World War II, Britain’s winner-take-all electoral system generally has produced a two-way contest between the Labor Party and the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats historically have been the “also-ran” party that often has garnered less than 10 percent of Parliament’s seats.

However, Mr. Clegg’s strong showing during the campaign and in the televised debates, along with the voters’ distaste for politics as usual, threatened to make this election the first three-party contest in the nation’s modern history.

“Very few people would have expected it to be this close when the campaign started,” Mr. Forsyth said.

Thursday’s voting ended a tumultuous, six-week campaign during which the ruling Labor Party struggled with recession and deficits from the financial crisis, as well as voter animosity and scrutiny from the expenses scandal.

But Labor’s biggest negative was the personal unpopularity of its leader, Mr. Brown.

“Labor candidates have told me that on the doorstep, the Gordon factor is the biggest problem,” Mr. Bright said. “He is unsympathetic. People just don’t like him.”

Still, the prime minister’s personal unpopularity meant that his campaign missteps — topped last week when Mr. Brown referred to a voter as a “bigoted woman” — did not appear to dent his party’s standing in the polls. Labor had begun to pull away from the Liberal Democrats into second place in the final days of the campaign.

A key factor that helped shift this election to a more U.S.-style, personality-driven process was the introduction this year of televised debates among the three party leaders.

The three debates helped catapult Mr. Clegg into the limelight and create the opening he used to try to break the two-party mold of British postwar politics.

Mr. Forsyth noted that the Conservative Party’s Mr. Cameron initially was positioned as the candidate of change. “He was young, he was vigorous and he wasn’t Gordon Brown,” Mr. Forsyth said.

But after the first televised debate, it was apparent that Mr. Clegg had “trumped Cameron on change,” he said.

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